“H” Is for Home ... and also for Hell: A Survivor’s Tale
There is much to admire about Dave Pelzer. He proudly served his country during Desert Storm, and has received commendations from Presidents Reagan, Bush the First, and Clinton for his work as a motivational speaker. His other honors include being named California’s Volunteer of the Year in 1990, one of 1993’s Ten Outstanding Young Americans, and one of the Outstanding Young Persons of the World for 1994. In addition, he is a best-selling author and a loving husband and father. That’s a lofty set of accomplishments for any man, yet what I admire most about Dave Pelzer is that he didn’t grow up to be an abusive, alcoholic, psychotic mess. He certainly had reason to.
Pelzer is the survivor of the third worst case of child-abuse in California’s history, a case he vividly recalls in A Child Called “It”. Here he tells of a childhood so horrific and, at times, so nauseating that while reading I found myself praying that there was a hell so Pelzer’s parents could rot in it for all eternity. And not just hell, mind you, but a special place in hell designed specifically for people like this, a level of hell beyond anything Dante could imagine.
The tale starts with The Rescue, March 5, 1973. Having had his head smashed into the kitchen counter that morning for some minor offense, the 12-year-old Dave is sent to the school nurse upon arriving at school. It is a familiar routine for the child; he lies to the nurse about the bruise on his head, spouting the ridiculous explanation his mother has instructed him to recite. The nurse, once again, doesn’t believe him and checks her file on the boy. Bruises, cuts, malnutrition, and, of course, the stab wound: it’s quite a thick file.
On this day, March 5, the nurse has had enough and the school’s principal and the local police are called. In no time, young Dave is in a police cruiser, being taken to the San Mateo Juvenile Department, never to return home. It is important that Pelzer begin his story here, with the event he credits for saving his life. Knowing that there is an end to the suffering Dave endures allows the reader to make it through some of the book’s more difficult passages. By book’s end, most readers will be amazed and grateful that Pelzer survived long enough to be rescued.
The young Dave’s life wasn’t always hell on earth. The third of four boys in the Pelzer family, he describes his early years as a “Brady Bunch” existence, full of family picnics, holiday frivolity, and his mother’s wonderful cooking. Catherine, Dave’s mother, loved to cook exotic meals for her family and decorate their home in creative and imaginative ways each holiday season. She was full of energy, often taking her kids on tours of downtown San Francisco while her husband was at work, exposing them to Golden Gate Park and Chinatown. Once, while on a family camping trip, young Dave was watching the sunset when he felt his mother embrace him from behind and watch the sunset with him over his shoulder. “I never felt as safe and warm as at that moment in time,” he recalls.
But then, his mother changed. Slowly at first, but drastically. Her behavior became erratic and her drinking increased heavily. She became easily frustrated, and it seems that her biggest source of frustration was Dave, the loudest and wildest of her children. And thus, Dave’s nightmare began. Pelzer is never clear on what caused this drastic change in behavior; most likely, he doesn’t know and never will. This was the Sixties and people in suburbia didn’t discuss things like mental illness and child abuse. Too often, family secrets back then stayed deeply hidden, as was the case in the Pelzer family.
Catherine’s descent into madness went unchecked by those around her, particularly her husband, whose job as a fireman often kept him away from the family for days at a time. She found any excuse to punish Dave, while favoring her other children, and her punishments grew more demoralizing the older he got. Initially, she would slap him, smash his face into the mirror and make him repeat “I’m a bad boy!” or require him to search for hours for an item she had “lost.” But with time, her cruelty grew to include denying him food for days on end, making him sleep on a cot in the basement, forcing him to wear the same unwashed shirt and pants to school every day for three years, and referring to him only as ‘the boy’ or ‘it.’
As if those experiences weren’t damaging enough, she also devised special punishments for him, such as turning on the stove’s burner and laying the naked boy across the stovetop. Many are her “punishments” are too sickening to describe in the space available here, and to do so would destroy much of the emotional impact of the book. Still, one incident Pelzer describes gives a good representation of his daily life. After being deprived of food for three days, his mother had given him 20 minutes to clean the kitchen and do the dishes. Staggering drunk, she grabbed a kitchen knife and began waving it in his face, shouting, “If you don’t finish on time, I’m going to kill you.” In her drunken stupor, Pelzer’s mother lost her balance and stabbed her son in the chest. Initially, the mother took care of her son herself, denying him medical care despite his significant blood loss and the severity of the stab wound, but after a few days the boy was left to take care of himself again, even when his wound became infected three days later:
I snatched another rag, rolled it up and stuffed it in my mouth. I focused all my attention on the thumb and first finger of my left hand, as I pinched the skin around my slit. With my other hand, I wiped away the pus: The pain from the pinching was more than I could stand. With my teeth clamped tightly on the rag, my screaming was muffled. I felt as though I was hanging from a cliff. By the time I finished, a river of tears soaked my shirt. Fearing that mother would catch me not sitting at the bottom of the stairs, I cleaned up my mess, then half-walked, half-crawled to my assigned place at the foot of the staircase. Before I sat on my hands, I checked my shirt; only small drops of blood escaped from the wound to the rag bandage.
Dave’s hopes for rescue initially lay with his father. Once an advocate on behalf of his son, Stephan Pelzer, also an alcoholic, eventually grew tired of battling his wife and allowed her to do what she would to the boy. When Dave told his father that he had been stabbed, Stephan responded by asking why. Upon hearing that the boy had been stabbed while doing the dishes, the intoxicated father told his son, “Well, you ah , you better go back in there and do the dishes.” He did, however, promise not to tell his wife about their conversation so that the boy wouldn’t get into further trouble. It was at this moment that the boy realized that no one in his household would or could help him. Eventually, the elder Pelzer left the family, allowing his wife to take her reign of terror to new heights of sadism.
Pelzer’s parents are both dead, and therefore unable to offer their version of these events. However, the back of A Child Called “It” contains letters and statements from police officers and Dave’s former teachers to validate his claims. To the best of my knowledge, his brothers have remained silent regarding the book.
Obviously, the stories of Dave’s childhood are difficult to read. At times, I had to put the book down and walk away for a few days before I could continue. So why would anyone want to read this book, with its seemingly endless tales of torture and cruelty? More importantly, why should anyone read it?
There are two reasons, the first being that Pelzer’s tale is a testament to how much the human spirit can endure and remain whole. Pelzer tells of his resolve to not be defeated. With each incident, Dave managed to find some way to placate his mother. While he couldn’t make the abuse stop, he learned how to manipulate his mother’s behavior enough to keep the immediate situation from getting even more ugly. Each time his mother walks away from him, you get the feeling that he would like to shout out after her, “Ha! You didn’t kill me this time, bitch, and you aren’t going to kill me next time either!” It is an incredible tale of strength and courage in a person not even old enough to reach the bathroom sink.
With the rise in popularity of the Chicken Soup series and other feel-good-about-life books, it is easy to see why this book has become an international bestseller. If a child can endure this and walk away with his head held high, what the hell do I have to bitch about? Despite all that we endure the cranky boss, the philandering girlfriend, the leaky roof, the unbearable traffic jams there is so much more in our lives to be grateful for, and Pelzer helps us realize how blessed we truly are.
The second thing that Pelzer accomplishes is that he puts a face on child abuse. Every day, we see kids getting slapped in Wal-Mart or the grocery store and parents threatening, “Just wait till I get you home!” In recent months, we have heard tales of the mother who drowned her five children, and the mother who starved and imprisoned her daughter. Celebrities such as Anne Heche and Roseanne regularly appear on talk shows and in print discussing their dysfunctional families. Students are killing one another in our schools, and the media is quick to report on every detail of their home lives. After awhile, as we read these accounts, we become numb, write them off as yet another example of bad parenting, and think to ourselves, “Gee, that’s too bad. I really feel sorry for the kid.” Then we turn the page to find out what Marmaduke and Doonesbury are up to.
Pelzer refuses to let us have that easy out. There are people involved in these stories, he reminds us: people suffering in ways that we can not possibly imagine, and to turn our backs on them makes us no better Stephen Pelzer, the man who knew better and did nothing. I defy anyone to read this book and not admit that we must do something to stop the abuse of our most precious asset, our children.
One could say that A Child Called “It” is good literature if good literature is, in fact, supposed to illicit an emotional response from the reader. However, from a purely literary perspective, this book, the first of a trilogy about Pelzer’s life, is not really “good” literature. Pelzer’s writing style is simple at best; there is no great effort to employ the literary tools we associate with the classics: foreshadowing, detailed metaphors, analysis of motivation, etc. Pelzer relies on “language that was developed from a child’s viewpoint” he tells us in the author’s notes, resulting in a straightforward “This happened, then this happened, and this is how I felt” approach. What makes the book so compelling is the tale itself, as Pelzer describes incident after incident of cruel torture at his mother’s hands and the ineffective and lame efforts of his father to protect him.
Indeed, Dave Pelzer is an admirable man, not only for surviving a horrific childhood and growing up to be a man of many accomplishments, but also for taking us on a journey in A Child Called “It” that forces us to reevaluate our own lives and the world around us. I have yet to read the other two books in Pelzer’s trilogy, The Lost Boy and A Man Named Dave, but I am eager to follow the progression of this man’s life. Now a doting father, Dave Pelzer provides affirmation that the cycle of abuse can be broken. It is a message that must never be forgotten in our legislatures, our schools, or our hearts.